Interview: Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab

These last two weeks, Linden Lab has opened the doors for some of us to have limited interviews with Rod Humble, the freshly-minted CEO of Linden Lab, and the new face at the helm of Second Life, and I was among those given the opportunity to ask some questions. I took the opportunity to ask a number of you just what questions you’d like answered, and managed to squeeze a number of them in on your behalf.

Humble was quite circumspect and reticent in his responses, but to be fair, he’s only been involved with Linden Lab for about three weeks so far, and is far less acquainted with what Linden Lab has done to-date than most of the rest of us.

TMJ: How would you describe Second Life in your own words?

I wouldn’t. Partly because I feel I would be a little silly by naming something that others (such as yourself) have experienced far more than me, but more importantly, I would let our customers do that over time as we figure it out together. I think it has something to do with creativity and how we evolve identity as we interact with others, but I like its undefined nature. I like its ambiguity. That to me feels like it is the beginning of something.

TMJ: Linden Lab has received quite a bit of criticism for its removal of discounts for educators. Given the subsequent increase in educators starting to look elsewhere, how does Linden Lab see the non-profit / education sector fitting into its strategy?

I wasn’t really here for that, so it’s hard for me to comment on past policy, but we certainly value these communities and don’t want to hamper their contributions to Second Life or prevent them from getting the value from it that they currently do.

TMJ: Going back a couple of years, Linden Lab was driving the interoperability agenda to a large extent, with that now being driven primarily by the OpenSim community. Does Linden Lab have any plans to get more substantively into that space and if not, is it just a case of keeping Second Life’s feature set ahead of OpenSim in order to maintain the lead?

Sorry it’s too soon to talk about this. Gotta play the new guy card.

TMJ: To get parochial for a second, back in mid-2007 we were told there would be Australian-based Second Life servers “real soon now”. Can you outline your strategy for managing bandwidth and response times for Second Life outside of the USA?

Yeah that’s a bit too detailed for me right now, but we definitely intend to fully support customers worldwide. How we can do that, we are looking at, but it varies by territory.

TMJ: What do you think Linden Lab’s strengths are?

Customers – we are blessed by customers who talk to us a lot and are not shy. This is a tremendous asset. While obviously we make mistakes and do not please everyone, the level of feedback helps us enormously. Our harshest critics are also our staunchest defenders when others put out misinformation about Second Life. If anything, getting customers’ voices heard coherently is our biggest task. There are way too many places where customers send feedback (or a “tower of babble” as one customer put it). As part of serving folks better the team here is trying to focus that more.  The new user groups are a step along that path. Finally, of course, our customers literally make the whole world.

TMJ: Given that you’re approaching things from a different background, what do you think Linden Lab’s biggest mistake has been?

Given the incredible technical and social challenges that Second Life solved, I am not sure I would label much to be a massive mistake. Second Life is technically really impressive – Linden Lab solved some astoundingly difficult technical problems in order to create it – but it’s still much too hard for new users by an exponential factor rather than a small one. There’s a big gap between how experienced customers can enjoy Second Life and the experience of a new user, and that’s a huge opportunity for us. What’s interesting is that in the entertainment space, most companies face these challenges in the reverse order – first you figure out ease of use and accessibility, how to make interacting with it an enjoyable experience, and then you tackle the technical stuff to make it work.

TMJ: What particular thing do you feel you’re bringing to Linden Lab, given your skills and background?

I hope my experience in growing large communities will prove useful to our customers. I care about art and creativity, I express myself through technology. I hope those traits will prove helpful.

TMJ: Linden Lab has spent much of the last decade juggling one or another balance of “fast, easy, fun”, seemingly without really finding a balance point that lasts for more than a few months. Is the problem – do you think – with finding the right balance, with the thrust of the strategy itself, or is there some third angle we’re overlooking?

I wasn’t here, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on past strategies, but I will say Second Life is a vibrant world that exists today and is enjoyed by millions of people, so it succeeded in many ways. It seems to me that a blended strategy can often be effective. I am used to operating a strategy where you have a general strategy setting the overall direction then initiatives on a 1, 3, 6, 12, and 24 month timeline, which evolve as you work through them. That technique is not particularly revolutionary but it works.

TMJ: Linden Lab has always seemed to most focused on the retention of new users at the apparent expense of existing users. I know this comes across as quite a leading sort of question, and I cannot really see quite how to avoid that I’m afraid, but do you think that situation should continue, be reversed or should some other sort of balance be struck?

I think you can see from my comments above that I strongly believe you need both. Our existing customers should expect us to do a bunch of unsexy backend work to address your valid issues. I would also say that intelligent internet savvy new users are utterly lost with the current experience and discoverability. That for sure will also be addressed in the short term.

TMJ: Have you tried any third-party viewers? If so, do you have any preferences?

I have tried them all they all have positives and negatives. I do have various features I like from each that I think we should learn from.

TMJ: What do you feel is the greatest threat to Second Life?

If we put barriers in the way of creativity and exploration. There are temptations to do this every day. They need to be avoided.

TMJ: What actually are Linden Lab’s goals or direction for Second Life? Nobody’s ever really said, and everyone’s awfully curious.

As I mentioned before, my goal is to enable our customers’ expression and creativity, beyond that, let us see where the journey takes us all. The residents of Second Life are smart, communicative and creative. They are going to take this in all sorts of directions. Our job at Linden Lab is to set solid foundations, create the tools, and then get out of the way as much as we can.

TMJ: Should we expect a change of direction from the Lab and/or for Second Life? If so, how?

Expect to see a focus on customer service, experience, creativity and usability. Second Life should become the natural home for intelligent, creative, and social people online. Whether that is a change or not I don’t really know, but those are my priorities right now.

TMJ: Under Philip Rosedale’s tenure as CEO, Second Life’s motto was “Your world, your imagination”. During Mark Kingdon’s era it was “Your world, your way”. What motto do you feel will be the hallmark of your own tenure at the Lab?

Those both sound good and appropriate to me. I don’t think 3 weeks in it would be appropriate for me to succinctly summarise or change a mission statement or motto.

TMJ: What are your initial impressions about the culture and communications inside the Lab?

It’s great! People are very friendly and committed to wanting to make something important. I am really taken aback by just how much people here care. It is good to see.

TMJ: What are your personal goals while you’re the CEO of Linden Lab?

I would like to meet someone in five years who said “Yeah I joined Second Life just after you joined, and it really meant a lot to me. The people I met, the things I saw. That was important.” If I can achieve that, if a decision I take changes some human beings for the better, then I will be pleased …………Oh and I want to script a fully operational miniature wargames table in Second Life 🙂

TMJ: We don’t want this to be entirely one-sided. What are we – as users and customers – not asking you about that you’d nevertheless like us to hear?

I will read the comments to this interview, what I would most like to know is this: In 2 years time what would you most like to be doing in Second Life, and how would you like to be doing it? The answers to that question would be very helpful indeed.

So, who is willing to speak up in response to Humble’s question: In 2 years time what would you most like to be doing in Second Life, and how would you like to be doing it?

Second Life metrics Q4 2010: stagnation and Hong Kong comparisons

Linden Lab have released some limited (extremely limited if you compare to say three years ago) statistics on Second Life’s performance for the fourth quarter of 2010. It’s a snapshot of stability really, or stagnation if you expect some signs of growth in a platform of Second Life’s longevity. Average monthly repeat logins are up slightly whilst total user hours remained the same, meaning that on average people spent less time in Second Life. Web sales of SL merchandise continue to grow, albeit at an expected slower pace than previous quarters.

One regular point of fascination for a lot of people is how big Second Life is. Coming in a little over two thousand square kilometres now makes it around the size of the Maritius. Linden Lab equate it to two Hong Kongs. Either way it’s a pretty pointless but fun comparison.

On the economy I’m going to directly quote colleague Tateru Nino:

Now, the currency supply. It seems that after a long time, Linden Lab is finally selling L$ on the market again. The money supply is up, LindeX trading volumes are likewise up, and the value of the Linden Dollar (relative to the USD) improved. These are all good economic signs. It’s too soon to call that an economic recovery, but it is certainly looking promising. 100,000 fewer accounts paid or received Linden Dollars by any means than in Q3, following a decline that started at the end of Q1. So, fewer economic participants, but an apparent improvement in the economy for those that are participating. Any data that might contradict this is just not available.

So overall? There’s nothing in here to get excited about and arguably there’s some aspects to be suspicious about due to the dearth of information provided now. The touted ongoing user experience improvements will take a while, even after being implemented, to affect these numbers. That said, pessimism would probably be an overreaction to these figures, assuming the non-released data is as stable.

Second Life in a web browser: beta launches

With minimal fanfare, Linden Lab have launched a beta of their ‘Second Life in a browser’ offering AKA Project Skylight. Found here, you can sign-up and check it out in a session lasting up to an hour.

As always, Tateru Nino has scoped it out in detail, noting that not surprisingly it’s a bandwidth hungry beast and that once you watch the 45-second intro video a selection process occurs that determines whether you get to sign up to check out the web-based browser or not. If you get the normal Second Life sign-up page then you’re out of luck. Like me.

For those who do get to have a look, post your thoughts / impressions so the rest of us can get at least a taste. For me, this is Linden Lab’s only shot in the locker to secure the longer term future of Second Life beyond its plateaued growth. The gloss is there with this launch, here’s hoping the substance matches.

Second Life in a browser on the near horizon

“Project Skylight” is its name apparently, and it’s the project that will hopefully deliver Second Life in a web browser. Tateru Nino got a confirmation from Linden Lab that testing will be occurring, so hopefully we’ll see some concrete examples in the short-term.

It’s a well overdue development, and one that is not so much innovative as essential for Second Life’s longer term survival. I know that for me my time in SL use will increase with a browser based version, as I can do it alongside my other browser activities. It’s a no-brainer really and kudos to the developers making it a reality.

Why Second Life is already second-best for education

The announcement by Linden Lab in the past 24 hours that their discounting of pricing for educators and non-profits would cease in January 2011, has engendered the expected level of outrage. And rightly so, given the critical mass of educators that have generated significant outcomes for Second Life. In fact, it could be argued that it’s only the good news stories generated by the non-profits that have helped offset some of the negative aspects inflated by parts of the mainstream media and others. The comments section below the announcement is well worth a read: even taking out the initial emotion, the overwhelming attitude is that it’s time to downsize or move on. Of course, the migration to OpenSim grids is already well underway, for a range of reasons.

As someone who follows virtual worlds pretty closely, I thought I understood the specific reasons for the move from Second Life fairly well. However, I only got the full picture over the past month, when I needed to explore options for my own education-related build. Without boring you with detail, I’m looking at conducting some research that will involve some fairly complex simulations. When I wrote the proposal for the research, I was already assuming that Second Life wouldn’t necessarily be the platform due to cost constraints (and this was before the price-rise announcement). That assumption was confirmed after some detailed discussions with a number of people, including someone developing a number of education-related projects including one aligned with my own proposal.

Based on those discussions and my own observations, here’s the key reasons I’ll not be working in Second Life for my education project (and most likely using either Unity3D, OpenSim or both):

Content creation: Although SL provides some great scripting options, the learning curve is significant and there’s minimal support for defacto design and modelling platforms. This leads to the need to either hire an SL builder or give up a significant chunk of time to learn a scripting language that’s not transferable elsewhere (except in some respects to OpenSim).

Structured learning: There is minimal ability in SL to guide avatars through particular experiences. Heads-up displays can work to some extent, but the scene-by-scene capability of Unity3D is head and shoulders above.

Reliability: ignoring historical challenges, the fact remains that down-time in SL is totally at the mercy of Linden Lab. A standalone OpenSim grid or a Unity3D installation aren’t as susceptible.

Client: SL being still being a standalone client makes it a bigger challenge to use for education that a web-based client. That may change in the medium-term but it’s a deal-breaker for purposes where dedicated PCs aren’t an option.

Ease of use: One of the key weaknesses of SL is it’s ease of use, particularly for new users. It’s something that has improved and will continue to improve. Although competitors aren’t markedly better, they certainly aren’t worse.

I want to make an important point: Second Life deserves to continue to grow and I’m still confident it will, albeit with a very different focus to what it has now. The decision on education pricing fits the wider business model as it now stands. Even that is fine, if it’s based on confidence of a new market and unshakeable faith that the current shortcomings of SL will be overcome soon enough. On the face of it, that market isn’t apparent and the improvements still seem a while away.

I’d love to hear from educators / non-profits at the coalface. Emotions aside – have you started considering moving away from Second Life, and if so why?

Update: Linden Lab have made a follow-up statement with a rather interesting take on things.

Linden Lab CEO starts to turn the ship

For Second Life residents, this time of year usually generates a lot of interest due to the Second Life Community Convention. There’s no shortage of that interest this year given the tumultuous year to date and the return of Philip Rosedale to the CEO role. In a fairly relaxed presentation, Rosedale laid out Linden Lab’s plans for the remainder of this year and into 2011. Some of it he’d covered previously in communications on the official Lab blog and in-world, but there was also plenty of new information. Highlights included:

  • A rebuttal of press and resident perceptions that Linden Lab are financially challenged, emphasising that the Lab have been profitable “for years” and that they remain on a “stable footing”
  • An outline of the strategy-setting process undertaken on Rosedale’s return to the CEO role (not surprisingly there was no substantive comment on the previous CEO or layoffs) – the aim is now to make Second Life “Fast, Easy and Fun”. There was an admission that currently the platform isn’t meeting those aims on a regular basis
  • The tactical plan for delivering the faster, easier and more fun Second Life involves:
    • a “back to basics”  approach to identify fundamental flaws in user experience and to fix them – lag being the biggest target.
    • a focus on “winning back the lead” that involves further innovation in-world around content creation, with the promise of software updates as often as weekly, to deliver a much-improved Viewer in addition to background improvements
    • working on “the economy” in a way that ensures growth and makes digital content delivery easier – removing the ‘box on the head’ syndrome that new residents can experience
  • Specific improvements promised by end of 2010:
    • Fixing latency of group chat and problems with region crossings / teleports
    • The time from logging in to being able to effectively use Second Life will be improved by a factor of two
    • Reducing crash rates further
    • “Markedly change” the number of avatars per region – the actual increase isn’t being committed to at this stage, but the intention for 2011 is to deliver “big, big jumps”
    • Controls on avatar complexity in order to help deliver the previous four points
  • A second list of longer-term commitments:
    • Second Life mesh-based content now that bandwidth and highly complex prim constructions make it an option performance-wise (a beta-version will be available for testing by year’s end)
    • A more sophisticated naming system including elimination of the surname restriction and further name customisation options
    • Background downloading of Viewer update
    • Teen Second Life is officially on schedule for termination, with 16 and 17 year-olds allowed to access the main grid given the clearer boundaries around adult content
    • A nod to the iPad as a potential Second Life delivery platform

You can watch the full 45-minute presentation plus all the follow-up questions below – it’s worth listening to the Q&A session as it covers key areas like Search problems, interoperability :

The take-home message from the presentation? Philip Rosedale is certainly back in the company with a vengeance, and the announcement of the roadmap and proposed changes is encouraging. That said, the Teen Grid closure and avatar complexity controls are likely to generate significant debate.

Rosedale said himself in the presentation that delivering the promises is what counts – there’s been no shortage of promise previously, with some of it delivered. The ratio between the two needs to get to 1:1 for Second Life to have a fighting chance of long-term survival. The most encouraging aspect is that Linden Lab’s CEO seems to understand that this is likely the last big strategic route change they can make before concerns on Second Life’s viability become an urgent issue for the company.

Over to you: what stands out for you as the positive and negative aspects of the Lab’s proposed direction?

The history of Second Life

Over the past two months I’ve been pretty immersed in virtual worlds history in regards to health innovations (for this book), and it’s certainly been an illuminating experience. That said, this post from Tateru Nino over the weekend is the most illuminating piece of virtual worlds history I’ve read in a long time.

Coinciding with Second Life’s 7th birthday celebrations, the first part of the history covers 1999-2002 – do yourself a favour and have a read. There is of course further parts on the way and I’ll add them here as they are published. If you end up on a history binge, don’t forget the Virtual Worlds Timeline site either.

The full history of Second Life as seen by Tateru Nino:

Part 1: 1999-2004
Part 2: 2005-2007
Part 3: 2008-2010 and beyond

Merged realities – events and issues for virtual worlds

1. Fashion-centric world Frenzoo continues its evolution, announcing the ability to create furniture.

2. The veteran OLIVE platform continues development, this time announcing it will demonstrate the use of its platform to deliver clinical behavioral therapies, including “engaging clients and maintaining their active participation, efficiently overcoming individual emotional barriers to therapy and accelerating the therapeutic progress” to name three.

3. The rumours have started flying that Linden Lab CEO may be in for the chop, with former CEO Philip Rosedale to return to a more hands-on role. It seems a little strange that a CEO would oversee a significant reduction of staff and then be removed / replaced a matter of days later. Unless they weren’t calling the shots on the restructure in the first place…..

4. Want to win a premium Second Life avatar for yourself? Then contact ABC Island admin, Wolfie Rankin.

5. Paisley Beebe’s 3rd anniversary show is happening this weekend. That’s a lot of virtual worlds TV hours!

Susa Bubble: saving the art from censorship

You may have seen a story on New World Notes today about the removal of an installation from the 7th birthday celebrations for Second Life.

First, some context. The installation is titled Susa Bubble, and it looks like this:

(You can check it out for yourself in-world or you can view a higher-res pic here)

The creator, Rose Borchovski sums up the issue from her perspective:

The Kiss has been returned to me from the SL7B sims where Linden is celebrating Secondlife. I quote “The images on your build are in violation of our general rating, to be clear: Nudity is not allowed at art events with a general maturity rating.”
I would like to point out and educate Linden Lab that most of classic and contemporary art is based upon nudity. Not because of Sex, but because of the beauty and the vulnerability of the human body, the human body we all share and look at in the bathroom mirror in the early morning.

The story of Susa is a sweet but savage story, told in image and text, sound and installation. It is about our dark inside, but also shows how vulnerable and lonely we all can be. My art shows a naked body, but it is not about nudity or sex.

Art being shown at a public art event of Linden means pretty pictures that bring aesthetic pleasure void of all critical thinking. Culture must be “safe” / sterile, no matter how free of content that makes it. As implemented by LL, “Community Standards” means content so content less that no viewer has even a remote chance of being caused to think about anything, to question any of their values or assumptions. Safe in SL means safe from thought.

When I protested against it in the group chat I was shut out .I was told not to discuss it in SL7B Group Chat “because this isn’t the place” — because NO place is the place to discuss it — because we don’t even want to think or let others think about the ideas we don’t want to think about

The worst part of censorship is not that which is censored, but the climate of self-censorship it imposes on all artists. Art is about having a voice. Art is about thinking differently and about thinking from fresh perspectives. When artists are not allowed to have a voice, culture is not allowed to progress.
When I hide my susas nakedness, I have stopped telling her story.

Nothing is more resistant to authoritarian control than a naked body. Control & conformity require uniforms. Nudity is too wild and uncontrolled. When you know my Susa Bubble story you can see it isn’t really even about “nudity” but that just suggests how powerful the forces for thinking-avoidance-at-all-costs are. Better to censor the world than risk allowing in a question that could topple the status quo. Authority does not like questions. Authority does not like creativity. Authority does not like art. Authority does not like nudity.

I did not bring my installation to the celebration to publicize myself, I make in art in SL because I want to share my Susa story and touch people

Greetings Rose Borchovski

Take another look at the picture above and then explain to me how it really qualifies as nudity? And remember, Linden Lab CEO Mark Kingdon has had his own art exhibited in Second Life. Sure, there needs to be some boundaries around what is acceptable but is it just me that finds that boundary to be just a little tight?

If you clicked on the SLURL above you will have ended up on the University of Western Australia sim which is now hosting the installation. Jayjay Zifanwe from UWA loved the installation and offered to host it, not in protest but in admiration of the work.

Which is the sort of collaborative attitiude Linden Lab could have adopted in their dealings with Rose Borchovski.

On top of everything else the Lab have been involved in over the past week – did this need to occur?

The final word belongs to Rose:

“It would be wonderful to take this oppertunity to have a fresh look at art and Second Life and what it means to Linden, to have so many artist creating”

Linden Dollars: where’s the panic?

I have to say I was a little bemused at the announcement by Linden Lab of their faith in the strength of the Linden dollar, after a selling run over the past 24-48 hours. On checking the current rate, it shows a 10.4 million Linden exchange throughput with the exchange rate deteriorating to 307.9 Lindens per US dollar at its worst but now bouncing back to 288 at time of writing.

Based on a rough benchmark of 285 or so (which is around half-way between today’s low and average highs over recent months), that’s a less than 10% decline. Sure the volume is up, but did it require a full expression of confidence? Like any such expression, it can cause concern rather than provide reassurance. It also arguably shows a lack of confidence in the cohort of veteran Second Life residents who are on the whole likely to sit through any short-term fluctuations like this.

I had a brief chat to Tateru Nino this afternoon and she made the great point that supply of Linden Dollars on the exchange does tend to rise when there’s a decline of faith in Linden Lab – it’s not a lack of faith in the currency itself. This has been acknowledged to some extent in Linden Lab’s announcement, but perhaps a better tack might have been to provide some more transparency around its recent changes. There’s also another angle that could have been taken: that any fluctuation in the exchange rate can bring benefits as well as challenges. If any government expressed confidence in its currency every time it fluctuated 5-10%, there’d potentially be a lot more fluctuations.

Expressing faith in any currency can set alarm bells ringing, so here’s hoping for some more information in coming days to show that faith as justified. For mine, I did log in to look at buying some Linden Dollars if the decline had been significant. That’s the type of reaction that you’d expect from a Second Life resident with a longer-term view, who’s also happy to make a buck 😉

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